Twitching for storm petrels

The broch on the island of Mousa where many a storm petrel reside in the summertime.  Credit: Robert Furness.

Every year thousands of storm petrels summer on the remote islands to the north of Scotland. The arduous journey to see the small seabirds demands more than a birdwatcher’s interest — it requires the tenacity of a “twitcher,” someone who travels far to find rare birds. I made that trip, and here’s the resulting radio piece that aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday today.

Download the audio here.


Host intro: A twitcher is British slang for a person who will travel long distances to spot as many hard to find birds as possible. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro became a twitcher this past summer in search of European storm petrels. These small dark birds spend the summer on the Shetland Islands – that spray of a hundred or so islands to the north of Scotland. One way to find them is to take a ferry from
Shetland’s main island to the smaller, unpopulated island of Mousa ‐‐ in the middle of a damp and chilly night, then stroll about in the mud for a few hours.

Ari: I made the short boat ride to Mousa last summer with a tour group numbering about 25, each of us hoping to spot storm petrels. We chugged through the near darkness. You could hardly tell the difference between the black sky and the inky water. And after about 15 minutes, we landed…

Ari: …and we started walking along the sometimes stony, but mostly muddy path near the shoreline. The coastline was dramatic, with these massive fingers of rock that extended into the sea. The damp mist was so thick, it tickled our faces.

We walked with our guide, a jovial Shetlander in his 60s named Tom Jamieson. He sported a well‐trimmed, white goatee and he moved with an easy familiarity across the island, wiping the fog from his eyeglasses from time to time. Jamieson’s been leading this tour, in one form or another, since 1971.

Jamieson: We used to do it one night in the summer. I used to get a friend of mine to help me because I had a much smaller boat then. And it just sort of started from there, you know.

Ari: These days, Jamieson runs the nighttime tour twice a week from late May to early July. He’s come to rely on his wife and his two sons for help because it’s a full season. There’s no shortage of people flocking from all over the world to do the tour and to walk this very same path.

Ari: All of a sudden, Jamieson came to a halt. Our walk had brought us to a beach covered in these smooth, oval stones.

Jamieson: They’re here, right under our feet. Just in here. They’re actually just under the stones, in the nests. That’s where the nests is. Don’t go on the stones though.

Ari: But this wasn’t the place where Jamieson said we’d find the largest number of petrels. That was up ahead, so we kept walking through the grass and sticky mud until we came to a broch – that’s a fortified dwelling built 2000 years ago by an ancient Celtic people. It looked like a stout, stone tower, as wide as a schoolbus, and as tall as one too. Jamieson had gotten ahead of me and was already standing in the entrance of the broch. So I hurried to catch up with him.

Jamieson: Oh, you’re here again.

Ari: Yeah, maybe I’ll check it out.

Jamieson: Yeah, yeah, come in. Yes, in you go. Now, you can hear the storm petrels in the broch here. And the storm petrels actually come in through the walls, in between the stones and the crevices. They’re actually nesting just in the walls.

Ari: The broch is home for many of the storm petrels here. Their numbers on Mousa have doubled since the mid‐1990s. That’s good news considering how vulnerable the birds are to climate change, and to predation as well. It turned out the best place to hear the petrels was a small pile of rocks just outside the broch.

Ari: They sounded like little, whirring pixies or tiny, purring kittens.

Jamieson: Sort of a churry noise with a hiccup at the end.

Ari: Do you like the noise?

Jamieson: It’s a lovely noise. Very soothing noise, I think.

Ari: Why are they making that noise?

Jamieson: What they’re doing is they’re calling for their mate that’s coming back from being out at sea fishing. They say they can be away as long as 3 days at a time before they come back. They change over with the one sitting in the nest.

Ari: And the one sitting in the nest is warming the egg?

Jamieson: Yes, sitting on the egg to hatch it, yes. Then the other one comes back and they change over: the other one goes fishing.

Ari: Back inside the broch, I climbed up the narrow staircase along the perimeter. The top opened to the sky and suddenly, the island of Mousa was all around me. Tiny, dark shapes darted everywhere, circling and soaring before squeezing their way through the stones and into the black depths of the broch. The comforting purr of hundreds of storm petrels emanated quietly from inside. A couple months later, these birds would begin their epic migration southwards to the seas off South Africa. But on that summer night, they nestled together, whirring away, scanning the airwaves for their mate, and keeping the next generation warm.

For NPR News, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.


~ by Ari Daniel on November 29, 2009.

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